It’s never easy to move to a new school, but imagine being a senior in college spending his final season of eligibility in a different state with teammates he has never met.
Doing that this year with the Florida Gators is redshirt senior transfer Dan Wenger, who stepped onto the practice fields this spring as the most experienced offensive lineman on the team after spending four years under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Suffering a concussion during spring practice two seasons ago, Wenger was unable to recover and took a redshirt. Notre Dame would not clear him to play in 2011 and provided him with an out so he could seek an opportunity elsewhere.
“It was extremely tough,” Wenger said of being injured and not welcomed back to the team. “It’s one of those things where I’ve been working for this since I was a freshman in high school. Whenever that was, I’m too old to remember. It was heartbreaking. It was devastating to get that news. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was in between training for a pro day and looking for another place to play, and then when this opportunity got brought up, it was a no-brainer to come down here and give it one last go.”
As it turns out, Wenger could not have made a better choice.
Since joining the Gators, Wenger has been much more worried about fitting in than he was about his concussion problem. He said he started getting over the mental aspect of it during two-a-days when the players began hitting each other with pads on.
“It’s one of those things that’s been in the past and once I’ve kind of proved to myself that I am able to play and withstand the hits, it’s just…it’ll always be there, that memory of when it happened and last year, but when it’s out there on the field, it’s strictly football,” he said.
As for meeting a bunch of new teammates and acclimating himself quickly, that was a completely different hurdle he had to overcome. Luckily for him, he was accepted with open arms – and his experience in what was a brand new system to the team’s current players certainly did not hurt.
“It was tough at first. Initially, in my mind, I thought it was going to be really tough,” Wenger said. “Surprisingly enough I came in and they were very welcoming to letting me in and having me be a part of the unit. A lot of the guys [were] really taking my advice from being in this offense for four years prior to this. They took a lot of the advice I gave them – little tips and different things like that – so we got a better understanding of the offense together as a unit, making it easier for us going into camp.”
Wenger even set up a special midnight weightlifting session to help build camaraderie among the offensive linemen. He instructed everyone to dress up like WWE wrestlers and get in the weight room for some fun.
“That was kind of my idea to have everyone dress up as wrestlers. We had a lot of fun with that,” he recalled. “I think that was one major point in the summer where we all kind of came together since basically everyone participate in it and really went all out for it.”
For their part, the team’s current players did not take Wenger’s addition to the roster as a threat to their playing time but rather an opportunity to improve and learn the offense.
“It’s actually really helpful, really reassuring that we have him on the O-line,” redshirt sophomore center Jonotthan Harrison said. “He has a lot of experience. It’s just going to help us out because most of us are younger.”
Classmate and starting right guard Jon Halapio said the team did not expect Wenger to be a starter but were aware that he would see the field. Since being named the starting left guard and winning the team’s Scrap Iron Award for outstanding effort following the first two contests Wenger has been even more impressive.
“He’s real good. He’s played in this offense for a while, so for him to go and ball out like that gives us confidence,” Halapio said. “It’s real good to have him out there doing what he does on the field.”
With Southeastern Conference games beginning on Saturday, Wenger is excited to play what he deems as a true conference seeing as the Fighting Irish are an independent team. Though he said every game at Notre Dame mattered, he is “psyched up” to fully embrace the rivalries that come with the territory at Florida.
Equally enthusiastic are his teammates, who now only have to look just left of the center for a little advice or protection suggestions during the game.
Photo Credit: Associated Press